“Unflinching and beautifully written”, or words to that effect, have become staples of reviews of newly-published memoirs.
So much so that I can’t read them without thinking of the tweets Glaswegian comedian Brian Limond emits in response to celebrity deaths.
Whether it’s Peter Stringfellow or Robert Mugabe, Limmy has always met the deceased, just once, and can recall having found them “surprisingly down to earth and VERY funny.”
How can any reader realistically have a clue about how “unflinching” “candid” or “honest” the author has been with readers and with her/himself in their recollection, retelling and interpretation of events from their past? Because it rings true, never means it is true
I’ve been thinking about this a bit since I finished the late journalist Deborah Orr’s, Motherwell, a memoir of growing up in the shadow of the Lanarkshire town’s giant Ravenscraig steel complex in the 1970s and the impact a childhood she came to see as deeply dysfunctional had on the rest of her life, which was cut short by cancer last year.
It was a book I’d been keen to read from the moment I first heard about it: working class 1970s Scotland could do with being written about more, and Orr was only a few years older than me. I was confident, correctly as it turned out, that some of the book would connect to my memories of childhood and the transition to adulthood, leaving home and Scotland.
Also, to be unflinchingly candid for a moment, I expected it to touch far more than it did on Orr’s troubled marriage to the writer Will Self, which appealed to my nosy side.
As it is, Orr’s ex-husband appears only fleetingly in the book but there are sufficiently weighty hints dropped for anyone who had been pre-disposed to think of him as a comically pompous figure (as I was: see the tweet below) to tip towards a harsher judgement.
This is a reservation some reviewers have about the book: some see it as being laced with a vengeful spirit, others that it hints at dirt that is frustratingly not dished, apart from one scene in which someone who might have been Self raids the author’s treasured book collection for volumes he thought might enhance his own.
Most people minded to post a review seem to have found Motherwell both compelling and moving, as I did. Those that didn’t seem mostly to have a problem with Orr’s determination to analyse the story of her childhood, which, she writes, “became the story of my life” with the help of an over-arching theory of the importance of narcissism to many of society’s ills and the role it played in shaping those closest to her.
The unspoken implication is that she regards Self as a malign narcissist. Orr also reflects on her own perceived narcissistic tendencies, which she seems to blame on her mother, who wasn’t quite a narcissist but behaved like one because of the influence patriarchal notions of femininity had on her sense of who she was.
Confused? I wasn’t. I thought the theoretical framework Orr used to make sense of her life had a coherent ring to it, and I was interested in the theories themselves.
An alternative was expressed by one popular reviewer on the GoodReads website, who categorising Orr’s approach to understanding her own backstory as “cod psychology” while suggesting the childhood bullying she’d come to see as traumatic as being too insignificant to justify the label. In the New Statesman, Janice Turner suggested readers would be mystified as to why Orr suddenly starts “banging on” about narcissism.
These criticisms are unfair. The psychological theory is lightly woven into the fabric of the narrative and it is actually the strength of Orr’s reportage of her past that makes it possible for readers to draw different conclusions than she comes to. That’s quite a testimony to a writer’s skill.
An example of that is Orr’s portrayal of her father. Ultimately she is damning in her judgement of his inability to support his clever daughter’s desire for a bigger, freer life. But that does not prevent her crafting a profoundly moving depiction of a man left bereft by the circumstances of his life of any sense of self worth.
What I took from that was this: Alcoholism and domestic violence are not part of the Orr family’s story but reading John Orr’s daughter’s account of his life, it is not hard to see why they were so closely associated with the final decades of Scotland’s Industrial Age.
There’s much more to be written about the feel of council estate Scotland at the time of Orr’s adolescence but that doesn’t devalue her focus on the psychological landscape of that place and time.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have questions about the conclusions she drew from individual episodes. Often I wondered how her parents might have described some of the incidents and family conflicts that Orr later came to see as traumatically formative events.
Would a different person have been able to confront and resolve these family issues in her late twenties or early thirties rather than letting them fester into her fifties, only finding a certain peace with them as death neared? A few times I thought ‘it would be good to fact-check this’ by interviewing some of her school contemporaries.
But isn’t that always the case with memoirs? Their essential point is to describe significant life events as seen, lived, retained and then interpreted by one person. Orr does this in a way that sends the mind of the reader, or at least this reader, spinning in all kinds of different directions, and that’s what constitutes the fundamental strength of her book.
Orr’s upbringing had extraordinary elements to it, but my feeling was there was much more about it that was both ordinary and of universal resonance.
And the extent to which many of the key events in her story are open to multiple interpretation is something she acknowledges. As she writes: “It is hard to know what’s a revelation of hindsight and what’s a projection that helps you to bolster you own story.”